Patrick Muir, a Holland America employee, said our view of Cape Horn was the “best I’ve ever seen.” Because it was so calm, we were able to get relatively close to the island for a view of the Chilean military station and the memorial to sailors who had lost their lives rounding the Horn. The latter takes the form of two huge triangles of metal. The gap between them forms the outline of an albatross. One myth is that albatrosses hold the souls of last sailors.
One passenger with us said, “Alaska was picture-postcard perfect; Antarctica is the postcard in 3-D.” Another used a phrase meaningful only to the older generation: “The only way to get a picture of all this is on the celluloid of your mind.” With that in mind, I will not try to describe the pictures posted here or what we saw but just try to give a suggestion of what was there.
My mental images of Antarctica were rather vague. When I thought about it at all, I visualized men bundled up against the cold on a flat white plain perhaps with some sled dogs.
It is fairly flat at the South Pole where the U.S. now has a base. But the South Pole is on a plateau at about nine thousand feet elevation. Antarctica has mountains that rise over twelve thousand feet. Many mountains come right down to the sea. And the continent is not sterile. The only plants may be tiny, but there are penguins, seals,
whales, and birds everywhere.
The continent is large, but it doesn’t form a circle around the South Pole. The large American base at McMurdo is on the narrow side about a thousand miles from the pole. It is served through New Zealand rather than through South America. Indeed, the Antarctica Circle at sixty-six and two thirds latitude south encloses part of the continent but not all.
Twelve countries had territorial claims in Antarctica including overlapping claims by Chile, Argentina and the United Kingdom, old foes in this part of the world. Interestingly, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had any claim.
Scientists, the only ones other than adventurers to really want to spend time on Antarctica, were upset by the state of affairs and lobbied their governments to do something about it. After a couple false starts after World War II, a treaty was rather amazingly agreed to in 1959 encompassing all the territory south of Latitude 60 degrees south (remember the Antarctic Circle does not cover everything).
In its very simplified form, the treaty puts the 12 territorial claims in abeyance for an indefinite time, and says the whole place is open to everyone with certain conditions. For example, you can’t use Antarctica for a military base or military exercises. You can’t use it for nuclear waste (but you can use nuclear power if you haul your waste away).
Currently fifty-three countries have signed the treaty (oddly including Papua New Guinea) but only those with active scientific bases on the continent participate in decision making. Rules are created by consensus (a 100% vote) but miraculously they have passed over 200 regulations. Primarily the rules are designed to protect the environment and encourage scientific discovery. They attempt to coordinate projects so that more than one country isn’t doing the same thing. All science results are shared with everyone else after the researchers have a couple years to review and publish.
Just as interesting to me was the fact that the tourist ship companies have joined together and created environmental rules even more stringent than those of the treaty or their native countries. For instance, we were not allowed to have any food on deck, and no one was allowed to smoke on deck (the opposite from the rest of
the cruise when smoking was restricted to certain outside areas). We were encouraged to be sure no tissues escaped from our pockets.
Ships are not allowed to have more than 100 passengers go ashore at a time. On those smaller ships whose passengers go ashore, their pockets are emptied of any lint, and they wade in their boots through tubs of bleach before stepping ashore.
We had heard that last year would be the final year larger ships such
as the Zaandam, 63,000 tons, would be able to visit because of environmental restrictions on the burning of diesel fuel. One of the speakers on board said he thought it was an urban legend created by travel agents who wanted to increase business. The Zaandam burns light oil and is not allowed any heavy oil on board. With 1432 passengers, it is impractical to land passengers with only 100 people at a time permitted. There are even larger ships visiting, however, so for those of you who like us are concerned about rough weather in a small boat (let alone the dynamics of getting in and out of a zodiac), there are still lots of opportunities.
Even among all this splendor, we took a break for lunch and to take a round of Alie’s favorite cruise activity, ping pong. You may notice I am in most pictures, but Alie doesn’t like to have her picture taken. Nonetheless, we had to get one of her at Antarctica. She is prone to seasickness, and after decades with rheumatoid arthritis, she said, “gravity would get me into a zodiac, but it would take hydraulics to get me out.” So a small ship was out of the question. Nonetheless, while we didn’t land, this was her seventh continent.
We wove in among islands, down bays, past Argentine and Chilean research stations. There were times when the captain took us through passages that seemed blocked with floating ice, but most of that was relatively small. We did not challenge the bergs almost as tall as the ship.
What a day!
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